“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, February 24, 2008


This is the account in the Florentine Chronicle

“In that time the Count Ugolino being lord of Pisa, for the bad treatment that he used towards them, the people rose up in anger, coming with force and great uproar to the Archbishop Ruggiero Ubaldini, crying out: “Death! Death!” They took him and threw him in prison with two of his sons and two grandchildren, making them die of hunger in prison…Then Guido, Count of Montefeltro, commanded that Count Ugolino and his sons and two grandchildren never more be given food to eat, and thus they died wretchedly of hunger all five. These were the Count Ugolino and Uguccione, Brigata, Anselmuccio and Guelfo, and it was found that the one had eaten the flesh of the other, and finally the last rites were denied to them and all five in one morning were dragged dead from prison. This Count Ugolino was a man of such cruelty that he made the people of Pisa die of famine while at the same time having great abundance of grain, to such an extent that it cost seven pounds to buy a measure of grain in Pisa; then finally he himself died of hunger with all his family.”

Count Ugolino has had a famous afterlife. Dante came across him in the ninth – the lowest – circle of hell. His head was fixed to the top of another head – one that he chewed, as a dog chews a bone.

Dante interrupts him to ask his tale, and the head lifts itself from its bloody gnawwork to give his name and the name of the head he chews upon – Archbishop Ruggieri –

“That I, trusting in him, was put in prison/
through his evil machinations, where I died,/
this much I surely do not have to tell you.

What you could not have known, however, is/
the inhuman circumstances of my death.
Now listen, then decide if he has wronged me!

Ugolino’s story, in Dante’s version, is not as much about Ugolino’s stored up grain as it is about the deeper hunger – a hunger for something bloodier than grain – in the barely sublimated hunt of politics. Shelley translated this part of the story:

Now had the loophole of that dungeon, still
Which bears the name of Famine's Tower from me,
And where 'tis fit that many another will

Be doomed to linger in captivity,
Shown through its narrow opening in my cell _5
'Moon after moon slow waning', when a sleep,

'That of the future burst the veil, in dream
Visited me. It was a slumber deep
And evil; for I saw, or I did seem'

To see, 'that' tyrant Lord his revels keep
The leader of the cruel hunt to them,
Chasing the wolf and wolf-cubs up the steep

Ascent, that from 'the Pisan is the screen'
Of 'Lucca'; with him Gualandi came,
Sismondi, and Lanfranchi, 'bloodhounds lean, _15

Trained to the sport and eager for the game
Wide ranging in his front;' but soon were seen
Though by so short a course, with 'spirits tame,'

The father and 'his whelps' to flag at once,
And then the sharp fangs gored their bosoms deep. _20
Ere morn I roused myself, and heard my sons,

For they were with me, moaning in their sleep,
And begging bread. Ah, for those darling ones!
Right cruel art thou, if thou dost not weep

(Notice that these images of lean dogs were used by Shelley in his political poetry – especially in the Masque of Anarchy, where ‘seven bloodhounds” follow Castlereagh.

“All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.”)

Ugolino’s suffering is, then, first of a public thing, revealed in a dream, and then shrinking in an instant to himself and his children, who die like this:

They wept aloud, and little Anselm mine,
Said--'twas my youngest, dearest little one,--
"What ails thee, father? Why look so at thine?"

In all that day, and all the following night,
I wept not, nor replied; but when to shine
Upon the world, not us, came forth the light

Of the new sun, and thwart my prison thrown
Gleamed through its narrow chink, a doleful sight,
'Three faces, each the reflex of my own,

Were imaged by its faint and ghastly ray;'
Then I, of either hand unto the bone,
Gnawed, in my agony; and thinking they

Twas done from sudden pangs, in their excess,
All of a sudden raise themselves, and say,
"Father! our woes, so great, were yet the less

Would you but eat of us,--twas 'you who clad
Our bodies in these weeds of wretchedness;
Despoil them'."

The fourth day dawned, and when the new sun shone,
Outstretched himself before me as it rose
My Gaddo, saying, "Help, father! hast thou none

For thine own child--is there no help from thee?"
He died--there at my feet--and one by one,
I saw them fall, plainly as you see me.

Between the fifth and sixth day, ere twas dawn,
I found 'myself blind-groping o'er the three.'
Three days I called them after they were gone.

Famine of grief can get the mastery.”

It is at this famous and controversial line that Shelley breaks off. Borges, in The False Problem of Ugolino, claims that the earliest commenters took Ugolino to be saying that fasting did more than grief to kill Ugolino, and not confessing to having despoiled the flesh of his dead children. Borges backs up to consider the way Ugolino represents his children as offering their father their flesh:

“I suspect that this utterance must cause a growing discomfort in its admirers. De Sanctis … ponders the unexpected conjunction of heterogeneous images; D’Ovidio concedes that “this gallant and epigrammatic expression of a filial impulse is almost beyond criticism.” For my part, I consider this one of the few false notes in the Commedia. I consider it less worthy of Dante than of Malvezzi’s pen or Gracian’s veneration. Dante, I tell myself, could not have helped but feel its falseness, which is certainly aggravated by the almost choral way in which all four children simultaneously tender the famished feast. Someone might suggest that what we are faced with here is a lie, made up after the fact by Ugolino to justify (or insinuate) his crime.”

But Borges does not make the leap one might expect from his notion that Ugolino is lying – or is being made to lie. The two notions, of course, imply very different forces - on the one hand, the implication is that Ugolino did commit the crime of cannibalism, and on the other, the implication is that he is being falsely implicated as hinting that he committed the crime of cannibalism. Borges believes that Dante’s choice, here, is to arouse our suspicion without sating it with a definite answer. Borges takes this as a lesson in the form of art, as opposed to the substance of life:

“In real time, in history, whenever a man is confronted with several alternatives, he choses one and eliminates and loses the others. Such is not the case in the ambiguous time of art, which is similar to that of hope and oblivion. In that time, Hamlet is sane and is mad. In the darkness of his Tower of Hunger, Ugolino devours and does not devour the beloved corpses, and this undulating imprecision, this uncertainty, is the strange matter of which he is made.”

LI can travel with Borges so far on this argument, but we are much less sure that the strange matter of art is so different from the common matter of life. For it is part of life that we remember, and tell what we remember. And it is part of memory that we edit. We inexorably edit. Our lives aren’t lived in hard focus or in close up – they continually turn out to be softfocused, full of distracted pans, and the alternatives chosen are often, it seems, chosen unconsciously, or made up as the alternatives of the moment afterwards, after sloth, routine, and the contingencies of success or failure impel us to recarve the past. I don’t know if Borges had read about Schroedinger when he wrote this essay – if not, he stumbled on a Schroedinger-like situation without benefit of physics.

Oops. LI really meant to direct this post back to the predator – prey relationship discussed in the Queneau post. And we’ve gone completely astray. Sorry.


northanger said...

roger, it is the end of history as we know it. how do i know this? When there's a black man or woman President, it means "an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty."

northanger said...

all of life's riddles are answered in the movies

roger said...

North, I entirely forgot about the Oscars this year. You watched? Did your picks win?

Anonymous said...

I forgot all about the Oscars as well, but it's nice that Marion Cotillard was named best actress for her pretty amazing performance in La Môme




northanger said...

roger, i watched, no picks. we need to live blog something.

roger said...

Amie, who is going to resist that? And they nominated her for best actress, like in America? Like, she won the Oscar?

Wow, we are gettin' to be a suddenly sophisticated country. Barack Obama is going to be president, and we are puttin' up French biopics for the Oscars.

I'll have to check that out. After I get to the rest of the movies you've put on my list!

roger said...

North, were we bad not doing an Oscar thread? What's coming up? Hmm... Women's basketball championships are coming up, but we are feeling mighty low, here in Austin. The Lady Horns was tripped up, tripped on, and generally creamed by Texas a and m - not the aggies, all my brain cells shriek! and we want to hide our head in shame.

Anonymous said...

LI, La Môme is not a great movie by a long shot, though Marion C.'s performance is great. And the songs aren't so shabby.
As a rule, I don't care for french singers being compelled to sing in english. But there are exceptions to the rule


roger said...

Amie, I am so with you on french singers singing in English that it makes me cry to think that a naturally sweet language for singing like French is swept aside by eurovision-addled groups, looking for airplay on Berlin rock n roll stations, singing in English!

I try not to think about it too much, otherwise I start getting like Brando in Apocalypse Now.

northanger said...

thanks Amie, for all the Piaf links. i was impressed by the small snippet on the Oscars of Marion Cotillard's performance. watching her play Piaf walking into the room.... i need to watch the whole thing!

Roger, we could live blog the...um, i know! the Texas two-step next Tues.

roger said...

The what???? Linky, please!
Oh, wait a minute - is that the primary? I've voted already, and have to go to the caucus, I guess. It is all very confusing. But I know I voted for Marion Cotillard in that voter booth. Or for Barack Obama. Yeah, it was for Obama, who has rien to regrette, as of yet.

Anonymous said...

North, you are quite welcome! Though, when it comes to linking to the stars, I'm in the stone age compared to you.
I do want to apologize to Ugolino and LI for my rather side-tracking comments, but hey, a chained bird and the oscars were brought up and my synapses work in strange ways!
At least I did not go on about Daniel Day Lewis/Daniel Plainview as the "empty signifier" of capitalism, which seems quite the rage in theory blogs! Unlike LI, they seem to have never read a word of Diderot - or Marx for that matter!

northanger said...

Roger. if Obama doesn't win Texas i'll never speak to you again! just thought i'd give you a heads up. :) have fun caucusing. take pix!

Amie. roger must be the "empty signifier" of something. i know he is! but what?

roger said...

North -- hhhhooldddd your horses there, missy! How am I sposed to control Texas? Do these blog posts look like they come from the office of the guvn'er? or even outta the governor's ass? Because I sometimes drink like Sam Houston is no reason to think I'm the incarnate ragin' spirit of The Raven, ready to lay down the law to a buncha whacked Lone Star yahoos. Although, since you are the light of my life, I guess this means I have to get serious and figure out where my damn caucus is meeting. Where's that note they gave me... Hmm, {putting on reading glasses}, says hmmm hmmm voter mmm mbbll after... What? I'm supposed to meet at 7:15 pm on Tuesday where my Primary Precinct Polling location is? 7:15? Holy Moses! That means missing the Wheel of Fortune rerun! And Vanna is sposed to be wearing one of her famous Bill Blass beige and yellow sunflower ensembles, too!
Okay, I'll do it for you, North. This is obviously a HUGE sacrifice.

northanger said...

fuxake roger, you're the damn FRIENDSHIP STATE. a line must be drawn in the sand between two people & our time has come... are you my bosom friend or what?